Friday, May 30, 2014

Fact-Checking the Torah -- Ribit

We’re still working on Exodus 22:24, Leviticus 25:36-37 and Deuteronomy 23:20.
When you loan silver to my people, to the poor with you, you shall not be urgent with him and you shall not place neshekh on him.
Do not take neshekh from him or ribit, you shall fear your Gd and your brother shall live with you.
You shall not give your money to him by neshekh or your food by ribit.
You shall not impose neshekh on your brother of silver or food or anything that can be the subject of neshekh.
We now know that neshekh is a lender’s fee, not necessarily the sort of interest we pay on our cars or houses.
I said at the end of the last discussion that a person might bond himself out for a day here and there if he needed spending money, and I said this fed into today’s topic.
It’s ribit.
The translation of ribit should be “unequal deals.”
This means two people agree to a deal but one gets more out of it than the other.
The classic situation is two people agree to help each other with field work on their farms.  It is only an equal deal if they are working on the same crop, at the same stage of growth, requiring the same sort of care, and the two crops are of equal quantity.
If farmer A gets help on barley but farmer B doesn’t ask for payback until it’s time to work on wheat, they need different amounts of energy to work on them.  If A and B exchange services on barley, A may have a more scanty crop requiring less work than B’s crop. 
The rabbis say what they should do is pay each other at the going rate for that day.  Then if there turns out to be a glut of workers on the market, the farmer getting help that day pays less, but it’s no different from what the other farmer would get if he hired himself out that day to some third farmer.
The phrase “food by ribit” means you can’t exchange barley for wheat or good wine for bad.  The classic situation is that if a man agrees with a baker to give wheat in exchange for prepared bread, but the wheat isn’t grown yet, that is potentially ribit.  When the time comes that the baker would normally get the wheat, if the crop has been destroyed, the man on the other end of the agreement might try to get the baker to accept barley.  But bread made from barley doesn’t sell for as much as bread made from wheat, so the baker comes out on the short end.  All the more so as the man might try to substitute wine, which the baker can’t use at all.
In short, bartering of services or products has to be done very carefully to make sure everybody comes out the same.  For next week read Leviticus 25:17 and we’ll discuss the last form of financial bad behavior.
© Patricia Jo Heil, 2013-2018 All Rights Reserved

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